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Why are they dying?

A photo of a bee.

It’s safe to say that the late John Muir would not recognize California’s vast Central Valley were he to visit today. When the intrepid Scots-American naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club travelled by foot through the region in the 1860s and 1870s he was astounded by the richness and diversity of the plants and flowers which carpeted the valley bottom and surged up the mountain slopes. In rapturous prose he described what he called the ‘bee pastures’:

When California was wild, it was one sweet bee-garden throughout its entire length, north and south, and all the way across from the snowy Sierra to the ocean... The Great Central Plain, during the months of March, April and May was one smooth, continuous bed of honey-bloom, so marvellously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step. Mints, gilias, nemophilas, castilleias, and innumerable compositoe were so crowded together that, had 99 per cent of them been taken away, the plain would still have seemed to any but Californians extravagantly flowery. The radiant, honeyful corollas, touching and overlapping, and rising above one another, glowed in the living light like a sunset sky...1

Fast forward a century and a half and you’re presented with a very different scene. Twelve-lane super highways weave through valley bottoms edged by suburban sprawl. Houses in serried ranks march up the hill sides. In the areas left untouched by strip malls and industrial parks, thousands of acres of tomatoes, peppers, beans, strawberries and lettuce are tended by Mexican workers in irrigated fields drenched with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. 

Pollinators, especially bees, are what pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson called a keystone species, at the very centre of the entire food web. Remove the keystone and the whole edifice collapses

But in the unique micro-climate of the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, fruits and vegetables give way to another cash crop – almonds. John Muir’s ‘bee pastures’ have been extirpated, replaced by 700,000 acres of almond trees. Eighty per cent of the world’s almonds are grown here. The state exports more than a billion dollars’ worth a year; the nuts are twice as big a money-spinner as the vaunted California wine industry. In February, a canopy of white blossoms extends to the horizon. The irony is that almond trees still need to be pollinated to produce fruit. But the crop is so large and so intensively cultivated that the few wild bees that remain can’t do the job. Apart from a few weeks of almond blossoms, the area is a floral desert. Where there is no nectar or pollen there are no bees.

Instead, growers rent honeybees from commercial beekeepers for a fee of $150-$200 per hive. The massive almond mono-forest requires nearly two million hives, which are trucked in from other parts of the US. Bees are stacked on pallets, hauled thousands of miles from more than 38 states, unloaded by forklift and scattered though the almond groves. Big beekeepers now make more from selling ‘pollination services’ than from honey. Of the three million commercial bee colonies in the US, more than two-thirds travel for pollination every year.2 

It is one long tour of duty covering the entire growing season. And it happens across North America. Honeybees are the migrant farm workers of the insect world. They’re critically important for almond growers – there would be no crop without them. And it’s good business for the beekeepers. But for the bees it’s another matter. They keep dying and no-one knows exactly why.

News of a mass die-off of bees first broke in 2006. Dave Hackenberg is one of Pennsylvania’s biggest beekeepers. He makes most of his income from renting out his bees. In October 2006 he trucked a batch of his hives to Florida to feed on Brazilian pepper (a widespread imported ‘exotic’ that now blankets much of the state) after they’d worked the blueberries and pumpkins up north. When he checked the bees a month later he was stunned. Most of the hives were ghost towns: honeycomb, a few nurse bees and the occasional queen remained, but little else. Hackenberg had 400 hives on the site and all but 32 had collapsed. And the puzzling thing was there were no dead bees in sight. It was like they had simply disappeared, vanished. Not only that, but opportunistic raiders (moths and beetles) that usually invade a hive after it’s in trouble refused to go near the dead zones. The syndrome was quickly given a new name: colony collapse disorder (CCD).3

It wasn’t long before other beekeepers across the US were reporting similar losses. By the spring of 2007 it was clear that CCD was widespread. A quarter of all US beekeepers had suffered losses and more than 30 per cent of all bee colonies in the country were completely wiped out. Eerie reports of huge die-offs also came from Australia, Canada, Brazil, China, Europe and other regions. In Britain, losses averaged more than 30 per cent over 2007-08. But nowhere did they approach those in the US and nowhere else was the term CCD applied.

Pumping pesticides in Senegal. The routine use of agro-chemicals is causing havoc among global bee populations.

Photo by: Jacob Silverberg / Panos

Bees in one basket

It’s not unusual for bees to die in large numbers. Cold weather, deadly mites, bacteria, viruses, parasites, pesticide poisoning and fungal infections are common. Northern beekeepers often lose 10 per cent of their bees over the winter. So, you might be wondering, what’s the big deal? There are still lots of bees around, beekeepers can rebuild their hives – and maybe it’s not such a bad idea if some of those almond orchards are converted back to pasture. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Apis mellifera, also known as the European honeybee, accounts for nearly all the bees managed by beekeepers in Europe, the Americas, Asia, Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa. They are the one true global bee and they’ve become essential to modern industrial agriculture. It’s as if we’ve put all our bees in one basket.

Honeybees are generalists. They’ll feed on just about anything that’s blooming. According to the International Bee Research Association, a third of our diet comes from flowering crops and honeybees are responsible for pollinating about 80 per cent of them. They are essential in the production of at least 90 commercially grown foods. Apples, pears, apricots, melons, broccoli, garlic, onions, peppers, tomatoes and coffee – they all rely on bees for pollination. Trying to put a dollar value on ‘pollination services’ is a bit like trying to put a price on fresh air or clean water. Pollinators are more important than that. Bee-pollinated forage and hay crops like alfalfa and clover are also used to feed the animals that supply meat, milk and cheese. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a vegetarian or a meat-eater. Bees put food on the table. A report by the National Research Council in Washington hit the nail on the head: ‘Pollinator decline is one form of global change that actually does have credible potential to alter the shape of the terrestrial world.’4 

Pollinators, especially bees, are what pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson called a keystone species, at the very centre of the entire food web. Remove the keystone and the whole edifice collapses.

To complicate matters, there is mounting evidence that native bees (bumblebees, alkali bees, mason bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, etc) and other pollinators like moths, butterflies, bats and humming birds are also in steep decline. In Britain, more than half the native bumblebees have become extinct or will face extinction in the next few decades. In some parts of Holland, bee diversity has declined by 80 per cent over the past 25 years. In Canada, researcher Sheila Colla found that three species of bumblebee formerly common in southern Ontario and the northeastern US have disappeared since the 1970s. And in the US, the Oregon-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has placed four bumblebees, including the rusty-patched bumblebee and the Franklin’s bumblebee, on its list of most endangered insects.

Disease is the main suspect in the decline of the North American bumblebees. Dr Laurence Packer, a world expert in wild bees at York University in Toronto, believes US greenhouse growers are the most likely culprit. Bumblebees are widely used for ‘buzz pollination’ of greenhouse crops like tomatoes and peppers. In the 1980s growers sent bees to Europe to perfect breeding techniques. The bees returned infected with nosema ceranae, a single-celled protozoa originally from southeast Asia, which destroys the bees’ digestive tract. Before long the disease had spread to wild bumblebees.

The globalization of the bee industry has helped spread pathogens around the world – mites, bacteria, fungi, parasites and a whole host of deadly viruses. But there is consensus among scientists that habitat loss, the intensification of agriculture and the routine use of agro-chemicals are also playing havoc with bee populations and opening the door to disease. Bees need a varied diet to thrive. No single pollen source contains the vitamins, proteins, minerals and fats necessary for good nutrition. That’s exactly what they’re not getting with today’s massive mono-crops and rampant suburbanization.

The globalization of the bee industry has helped spread pathogens around the world – mites, bacteria, fungi, parasites and a whole host of deadly viruses

Many cash crops – like blueberries and sunflowers – have low-protein pollens. Farmers plough fields to the margins, hedges are grubbed out, verges mown and wildflowers (aka ‘weeds’) doused with herbicides. Meadows, prairies and wetlands have been paved and drained. In England, for example, flower-rich grasslands have declined by 97 per cent in the last 60 years. This loss of ecological diversity has a knock-on effect in the insect world. When bees can’t get the nutrients they need they’re malnourished, weakened and more prone to disease. 

Pesticides are another danger, especially a new group of insecticides called neonicotinoids – a synthetic form of nicotine which is soaked up by the plant’s leaves, stems and roots. Bugs take a bite and these deadly neurotoxins do their work. Imidacloprid, the biggest seller of the ‘neonics’ is approved for use on 140 crops in more than 100 countries, a bonanza for the German chemical giant, Bayer.5

These chemicals are not supposed to form lethal concentrations in pollen or nectar but the French are taking no chances. The country banned their use on sunflowers in 1999 shortly after they were introduced and honeybees began to die en masse. Bee populations gradually increased again after the ban. Since then ‘neonics’ have been withdrawn in Germany, Italy and Slovenia.

Elsewhere the pesticides are still in wide use even as researchers continue to study them. So far two things are clear. At high levels ‘neonics’ can disrupt the bees’ nervous system causing disorientation and eventually death.  And second, the chemicals have been found at ‘sub-lethal’ amounts in pollen, the bees’ main protein source. The real question is how many sub-lethal doses does it take to become lethal? No-one knows. The other unknown is how the hundreds of agro-chemicals now in use combine in the environment to become toxic. The chemical companies don’t test for the interaction of different chemicals and governments don’t demand they do. A recent study of CCD-afflicted colonies found more than 170 different chemicals in bees from the affected hives, including fluvalinate and coumaphos, commonly used by beekeepers to combat varroa mites.6 It seems the lessons of Rachel Carson’s classic work on pesticide poisoning, Silent Spring, have been slow to filter through.

No smoking gun

All of these factors can lead to what University of Guelph pollination biologist Peter Kevan calls unnatural ‘stress’ on the bees. Combine this with long distance travel and you’ve got a problem, says Dr Kevan, a member of the US National Academy of Science’s Committee on Status of Pollinators in North America.

‘The bees are bounced from one end of the country to the other, usually from east to west in the winter, which means they’re also getting cold and heat shock en route. Transport is part and parcel of commercial beekeeping in the US. And pollination services are dictated largely by huge scale mono-cropping. Once the bees get there they have no food except what they can get from the crop for three or four weeks. It isn’t surprising that there’s a lot of stress on these bees. Good lord, if you put me through that I’d certainly be pretty susceptible to a cold or the flu or whatever might be going around.’

A lot of ink has been spilled on ‘the mystery of the disappearing bees’ and legions of scientists have been unleashed to find the cause of CCD. So far no single culprit has been found; there is no smoking gun. In fact, it’s turned out to be a lot more complicated. The closest human parallel seems to be HIV. Bees suffering from CCD are riddled with all manner of diseases. It’s like there has been a general collapse in the bees’ immune system and opportunistic invaders have jumped in, much like the way pneumonia might kill someone with AIDS. A consensus is building that multiple factors interact to weaken the hives, making them susceptible to a range of pathogens and viruses.

We can now produce mountains of cheap food with minimal labour. But in the process we’ve levelled bio-diversity and become less resilient

Others are beginning to ask more fundamental questions about the nature of modern farming. Could it be that the high-tech, chemically dependent system we have created over the last 50 years, first in the West and now globally, is the source of the problem? The small-scale diversity of the family farm has been replaced by an industrial agricultural model premised on the narrow notion of economic efficiency and growth at all costs. Our food system is so dependent on cheap oil – for fertilizers, pesticides, powering farm machinery and transporting crops to market – that we have backed ourselves into a dangerous corner.

As Vermont beekeeper Ross Conrad writes: ‘One of the guiding principles of the industrial model… is the desire to maximize production and thus profits. When applied to agriculture this typically results in the drive to push biological organisms to the limits of their capacity.’7 

We can now produce mountains of cheap food with minimal labour. But in the process we’ve levelled bio-diversity and become less resilient. Writer and activist Chip Ward argues that we reduce the resilience of natural systems at our peril: ‘There is little resilience in a manmade system of food production that relies on healthy populations of commercial bee colonies to pollinate crops and too little resilience left in the natural world for bees to recover quickly from whatever is wiping them out... The cult of efficiency,’ Ward says, threatens more than the bees. ‘How futile it is in the long run to impose narrow notions of efficiency on natural systems that are profoundly dynamic and inherently unpredictable.’8

CCD is a wake-up call, a signal that our modern agricultural system is in deep crisis. People rightly worry about the loss of the big showcase mammals: the polar bear, the tiger, the wolf, the elephant. But the insect world may be a better indicator of the health of our natural systems. It’s not just the bees that are in trouble. It’s us.

  1. Excerpted from The Mountains of California by John Muir, available at www.sierraclub.org
  2. Robbing the bees, Holly Bishop, p.133
  3. For the full story of Hackenberg’s discovery see Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobsen, pp.57-66
  4. ‘The Status of Pollinators in North America’, National Research Council, Washington, www.nap.edu
  5. Fruitless Fall, pp.84-99
  6. ‘Solving the mystery of the vanishing bees’, Scientific American, March 31/09
  7. ‘Natural Beekeeping’, Ross Conrad, Bee Culture, Jan 01/09. www.beeculture.com
  8. ‘Diesel-driven bee slums and impotent turkeys: the case for resilience’, Chip Ward, www.tomdispatch.com